What is the difference between biscuits and scones? It’s mostly a matter of texture—airy and flaky versus rich and crumbly—and the ratio of ingredients that it takes to achieve each.
Begin with flour. Add a bit of baking soda or baking powder. Cut in some butter. Now bind it all with a splash of dairy, maybe cream or buttermilk. Now riddle me this: what kind of dough have you got?
Well, it’s complicated. Because while these ingredients could very well apply to any number of pastries depending on process, on the simplest scale what you definitely have are the makings for either biscuits or scones. So, given that their DNA is nearly identical (#twinning!) are they essentially different names for the same thing? (No.)
It’s certainly not as simple as shape, as anyone who has ever made free-form drop biscuits or precisely cut scones can tell you.
Nor is it necessarily a matter of add-ins; sure, scones are perhaps more prone to hosting gatherings of all manner of sweet and savory companions from dried fruit to chocolate chips, but if you’ve never had the pleasure of a biscuit spiked with cheese, or herbs, or lemon zest…I’m sorry, I need a minute to weep for you. (Also, try this Bacon Cheddar Biscuit recipe posthaste.)
Function doesn’t seem to be the deciding vote either, as both do extremely well as pedestals for eggs Benedict, or simply for (more) butter and jam. Both can support a little sugar. And there’s just about nothing stopping you from a simple swap from biscuits and gravy into scones and gravy territory.
The answer, my friends, is destiny! Sorry, what I mean to say, is density.
Biscuits are meant to be airier and flakier, scones are meant to be richer and crumblier. The nuance between them is achieved through ratios of butter and type of dairy in the dough. Have a look at two classic recipes for both biscuits and scones for further demonstration:
Fluffy, light, flaky. Qualities you don’t necessarily want in a friend, but definitely want in a biscuit. (So get a good, classic Buttermilk Biscuit recipe.)
When butter bakes, it releases moisture which turns to steam; a higher ratio of butter to flour in biscuit recipes promotes this airiness. The escaping steam literally lifts the dough while it cooks, creating biscuits’ signature layers. Buttermilk, the most common dairy companion for biscuits, also helps by providing a bit of acid to interact with a leavening agent, giving additional rise to the occasion.
Don’t be fooled by their precision-cut appearance. These are no delicate biscuit. Heavy cream and egg will see to that. Get our Cream Scones recipe.
Scones are made with less, and sometimes even no butter. (Though to my mind that starts to cross over into quick bread or soda bread territory.) The dairy component could be buttermilk, but will often be as rich as heavy cream. You might even see an egg or sour cream mingle in the mix for added heft, and an egg wash to add a little outer texture. The result of all of this richness is a certain comforting sturdiness; the kind that begs for a piece to be broken off and smeared with some clotted cream.
Since either biscuits or scones are apt to play nicely with others, here are a few other recipes for baking inspiration to show the versatile side of both!
Mashed sweet potato joins milk as the liquid agent in the dough, offering vibrant color and a little earthiness, but still maintaining that fluffy, buttery, biscuit-ness. If you don’t have a pastry cutter, this recipe also offers a genius tip in form of grated frozen butter. Get our Sweet Potato Biscuits recipe.
An easy way to alter the character of biscuits without needing to adjust the bedrock formula is with components such as chive and lemon zest that pack enormous flavor with very little volume. Bright and zingy biscuits with just the teensiest extra effort. Get our Lemon-Chive Biscuits recipe.